Every year, thousands of drivers in New Jersey experience pretextual traffic stops. In a pretextual traffic stop, the police will pull over a vehicle for an alleged minor offense, such as a missing sticker or driving violation like not signaling properly or rolling a stop sign. Then, once they’ve pulled over the vehicle, they’ll search for other illegal activity, such as contraband in the car or on the people in the car.
Pretextual stops amount to a fishing expedition, in which law enforcement attempts to find something that allows them to arrest a person, necessitating a criminal defense.
The problem with pretextual traffic stops
There are two main problems with pretextual traffic stops. Number one, they’re not effective in reducing crime. And number two, they often act as a means by which the police discriminate against certain populations.
Studies repeatedly show that pretextual traffic stops don’t lead to a decrease in crime statistics, which calls into question their purpose. If they don’t reduce crime, why do so many police departments engage in them?
And in practice, pretextual traffic stops aren’t applied evenly by geographic area or population. It’s far more likely that pretextual traffic stops will target poorer areas, areas with larger minority populations, and specifically young men of color.
The legality of pretextual traffic stops
The Supreme Court has ruled that pretextual traffic stops are legal, and in many jurisdictions, the police engage in them regularly.
Some municipalities have banned pretextual traffic stops to good results, but unless they’ve done so, the police are free to use thems. Only if the public agitates for a widespread ban on pretextual traffic stops will the practice end.
Pretextual traffic stops allow law enforcement to leverage an alleged minor traffic offense into a search for more serious wrongdoing. This practice is largely ineffective in curbing crime, and often the burden falls disproportionately on poorer people and minorities.